Every week as SmallBizLady, I conduct interviews with experts on my Twitter talk show #SmallBizChat. The show takes place every Wed on Twitter from 8-9pm ET. This is excerpted from my recent interview with Jane Jordan-Meier @aussiechic on Twitter. Jane is a famous import from Australia. She has worked for many years in and around the media and consulted on crisis communication in the sports industry and with corporate clients. She’s run two million dollar businesses, including her own PR firm. She’s also working on an upcoming book on crisis media management.
SmallBizLady: What are the warning signs that you are in the midst of a business crisis?
Jane Jordan-Meier: 1) Sudden unexpected, unwanted media attention; sudden unexpected negative mentions on twitter, negative video on You Tube. 2) If a relatively flat-performing employee is enjoying unprecedented success. They could be doing something illegal or against company policy. 3) A customer who used to complain a lot has suddenly stopped voicing their opinion so strongly. They are probably on-line being nasty. 4) Unfortunately many business crises go unnoticed, are deliberately avoided or pushed under the proverbial carpet – until something gets the nation and the business’s attention think United Airlines, smashed guitars and a You Tube hit
SmallBizLady: Are there any special skills needed for effective crisis communication?
Jane Jordan-Meier: You must be very calm under the intense pressure. It’s best to show empathy – put yourself in your customers/employees/victims’ shoes. Be authentic, genuine & transparent as opposed to evasive, defensive & negative. Be humble & admit when you’re wrong. Be tactical in your responses, never appear reactive. To speak persuasively, speak in everyday language to command a high level of respect.
SmallBizLady: What is a crisis communication plan and why does a small business need one?
Jane Jordan-Meier: When the unexpected happens you need a plan for what to say, when to say it, how to say it, where to say it, why and who will communicate the critical messages. A crisis communication plan is designed to minimize damage to the business brand and basically shapes how the story is told. Knowing what to say and having a plan for what to say and DO is far better than having to “make it up” in the heat of the moment. Most businesses that go thru a crisis loose significant business. 40% never re-open, 25% fail within 2 years.
SmallBizLady: What needs to be in a crisis communication plan?
Jane Jordan-Meier: The #1 thing to have is an up to date contact list! It sounds simple but so many businesses fail to keep theirs up to date. The list should include the business owners, an identified spokesperson, key vendors, external advisers (e.g. legal, CPA, PR) key clients (top 5 list), one-page fact sheet on the company, the products (and logo) in camera-ready condition & available on a CD/DVD in generally-accepted word processor format. You also need a pre-written frequently asked questions list that you have generated through your crisis scenario planning.
SmallBizLady: How long does it take to put a plan together? How do you get started?
Jane Jordan-Meier: Start by imagining what could go wrong – the more bizarre the better. Ask tough questions and involve your staff. How would it look if our problems were on the front page of the Wall Street Journal? Would we survive that test? Practice scenario playing – get a facilitator or someone independent from outside the business to help you brainstorm. You could do a plan in five minutes on the back of an envelope over a lunch if you ask the right questions! A good basic plan will take about 20-30 hrs. Spend $1 on preparedness and save $9 on response.
SmallBizLady: What do you say in a crisis? What are the rules?
Jane Jordan-Meier: There are 3 key questions that need to be answered in every crisis – what happened? How did this happen? What are you going to do to ensure it never happens again? There are also some critical no-no’s in a crisis. Release a statement within the first hour of something happens. Telling angry or frightened people to calm down has the reverse effect. Acknowledge the public’s concern and apologize for mistakes.
SmallBizLady: Should you use the same tactics in managing a crisis online as you would with a typical business crisis?
Jane Jordan-Meier: One of the big problems today is that a lot of people are treating every negative comment on-line as a crisis, when it’s not! It’s a negative issue that needs to be managed. The big difference today is speed – your reputation could be tarnished in hours if not seconds, so if it’s a REAL threat to your business ENGAGE & engage quickly. Also it depends if the issue goes viral or is isolated to a couple of negative tweets. The speed may have changed but the principles have not – act fast, tell it all and do it so with compassion, authenticity & transparency.
SmallBizLady: Can you list three steps to protect your reputation online?
Jane Jordan-Meier: Most important asset to any business, small or large, is its employees so keep them engaged and informed. Unhappy employees can turn rogue. Be authentic, be engaged, and be prepared to share insights and tips. Be a good corporate citizen. Never spam. Never attack, put dollars in the trust bank. Set up listening posts to monitor your brand – check twitter 3 times a day and key blogs daily.
SmallBizLady: How do you manage the media in a crisis?
Jane Jordan-Meier: Act fast; get a statement out within the first hour that says what happened & what steps you are taking to fix the problem. Respect and meet media deadlines, and be available. If not they will turn to someone else to fill the vacuum & that person is unlikely to have your best interests at heart. Have a strong, simple, consistent message & run it through the cynic filter before you speak or do anything. Give some background to the situation to put the incident into context, BUT only after you have expressed empathy & talked about the actions you have taken. Never repeat the negative of the question – state what you are doing in positive, use active language. Hire a PR person to assist with media training.
SmallBizLady: Who should be a spokesperson in a crisis?
Jane Jordan-Meier: It depends on the type and scale of the crisis, and whether your business has a significant profile in your industry or town. Go with a spokesperson that is well-spoken. If the CEO does badly, where do you go from there? The spokesperson must have credibility, must be believable, must look and sound trustworthy to be acceptable to your key audiences. The spokesperson must be able to handle the anxiety of standing before reporters and cameras. If you run a franchise, then you as the franchise owner may have more credibility in the local area then the President of the franchise corporation.
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